But its not just Google and Facebook mixing data to find trends and make decisions, it’s data collected by any technology and used by automobiles, high-tech home sensors, insurance providers, employers, retail sites and political parties.

Lately, however, it is social sites, fed with user-created content, dominating the privacy news. Those sites have a thirst for information that aids ad sales and stimulates other business opportunities around data that defines a person and their actions.

Today, those sites are staunchly defending that position. For example, Facebook spent $1.4 million in 2011 on lobbying, a nearly 300% increase over 2010. And Google spent $9.7 million, nearly a 90% increase over the previous year. Earlier this month, Google, which declined comment for this article, committed “tens of millions” of dollars to a privacy ad blitz around its Google+ social site.

At the same time, privacy groups like Consumer Watchdog, Electronic Privacy Information Center, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, Future of Privacy Forum, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and government bodies such as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the U.S. Congress, and the European Commission are calling for checks and balances.

In the past nine months, both Google and Facebook have been subjected to FTC fines and sanctions that stretch over 20 years.

“These companies grew up fast and they did not look at data like it was gold,” said Jules Polonetsky, director and co-chair of the Future of Privacy Forum. “The FTC wants them to realize they have gold here and they have to be careful.”

Self-regulation, legal and end-user efforts have helped carve out some limits and restrictions on how data is used.

Bills are working their way through Washington, such as the Commercial Privacy Bill of Rights Act of 2011, which calls for protections of personal information online.